New evidence in Rodney Reed case highlights victim’s fiance

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Attorneys for death-row inmate Rodney Reed have filed a motion in Bastrop district court stating they have found new evidence of a previously undisclosed investigation of the fiancé of murder victim Stacey Stites.

A Bastrop Court convicted Reed of Stites’ 1996 murder. Reed’s supporters have sought to exonerate him, and his execution was stayed by an appeals court in March. Reed’s defense team says Stites’ former fiance, Jimmy Fennell, is likely the real killer.

In the latest motion for discovery, Reed’s defense has submitted evidence from a recording of a January interview between the widow of a murdered Giddings police officer and a Bastrop and a Giddings investigator. The widow said her husband was conducting an independent homicide investigation on Jimmy Fennell, the fiance of Stites, before he was killed, according to the motion.

The widow’s slain husband, Giddings Police Officer Gary Joe Bryan, was killed about six months after Stites. Bryant told his wife he thought Fennell killed Stites, according to the documents. Bryant and Fennell both worked together at the Giddings Police Department in the mid-90s.

The woman “explained that her husband told her that he was investigating Jimmy Fennell—with the knowledge of at least one fellow Giddings policeman, Officer Nathan Lapham—and that Officer Bryant believed Fennell was guilty of the murder,” according to the motion for discovery.

Reed’s defense attorney Bryce Benjet said he is asking the Bastrop district court to allow him to conduct discovery, to obtain more evidence and information about Bryant’s investigation. More evidence of a “previously undisclosed investigation of Fennell” could help prove Reed’s innocence, the motion states.

“In this case, we received this recording from the Attorney General’s Office, and we believe the Attorney General’s Office very appropriately forwarded this information to us because it is relevant to the case,” said Benjet, a staff attorney for Innocence Project. “There is some evidence that an investigation was conducted in Giddings that we would like to find out about.”

The motion suggests that those interviewing the widow either tried to discredit her or “persuade her not to provide information helpful to Mr. Reed.” The motion also states the widow has some history of mental illness.

Bryant was killed in October of 1996, about six months after Stites’ murder. Authorities charged Mexican national Hector Manuel Mata-Mota of the crime, but the Third Court of Appeals ruled evidence did not support a capital murder charge, and Mata-Mota was deported “without ever standing trial for his alleged role in murdering Bryant,” according to the motion.

Lily Hughes, with the Save Rodney Reed Campaign, says while the evidence is promising, the case is wearing on Reed’s family.

“They’re tired,” said Hughes. “They want their loved one to come home and are a little beaten down by the process as it’s gone forward.”

April 23, 1996

Police found Stites strangled and left alongside a rural Bastrop road April 23, 1996.

Her fiance, Fennell, was the last person to see her before she left early that morning for work, court documents state. Investigators said Fennell was a suspect, but they never settled on him. After months of investigating, a match between DNA evidence found on Stites and Reed’s DNA led to his conviction for rape and murder.

Fennell worked as a Giddings police officer at the time Stites was killed. Later, as a Georgetown officer, Fennell was charged with sexual assault of a woman in his custody. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges of kidnapping and improper sexual activity, according to his attorney. Fennell is currently in prison.

Fennell has denied any role in Stites’ death. She was killed 10 days before the two were scheduled to marry.

Reed was set to be executed March 5. The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas stayed his execution, and it is still reviewing items submitted by Reed’s defense, including an appeal of a denial for DNA testing and a writ of habeas corpus. It is not clear when the court of appeals will make a decision on those issues.

In its motion, the defense also seeks to “conduct depositions on two of the state’s trial witnesses,” Karen Blakely and Meghan Clement. Those two women evaluated the state’s forensic evidence related to Stites’ time of death.

The state’s case against Reed was based, in part, on former Travis County Chief Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo’s time-of-death determination. Since the trial, however, Bayardo has recanted his time-of-death estimate as well as his determination on sexual assault. The defense says the state should not rely on Blakely’s and Clement’s findings, which were based on Bayardo’s work.

Read KXAN’s Investigative Story on the Rodney Reed Case

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